FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Tesheda Mansfield grew up in the protective walls of Sunland Park Elementary, participating in beauty pageants and field day, and walking home from school in the afternoons.
Now when she looks around the South Florida community she and her four daughters call home, she sees teenage boys hanging out at all hours in a nearby park, homes in battered condition, some with wood covering the windows, and groups of men and children sitting listlessly on their front porches.
"There's a lot of parents over here that don't have a job," Mansfield, a hospital receptionist said. "Some of them don't even know how to put together a resume."
Sunland Park Elementary was given an 'F' on Florida's annual school grades for three years in a row — only rising to a 'D' in the last school year. Ninety-nine percent of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — a key indicator of poverty. And while there have been some signs of academic improvement — the percent reaching high math standards rose from 30 to 48 percent last year — the statistics still paint a less than rosy picture.
When Mansfield and others are asked what's to blame for the school's struggles, they all point to one factor.
"The school is really not doing better because of the community," Walter Hinton, president of the local homeowners association, said on a recent, humid summer afternoon.
The Obama administration thinks that theory is right: If children don't have a safe place to live and study, or if they come to school with an empty stomach, the belief is, they can't learn.
Taking a page from the successful Harlem Children's Zone project, the administration requested $210 million from the 2011 budget to help blighted neighborhoods provide family, community and school supports, with the hope it will boost student achievement. More than 300 communities, including Sunland Park, have applied to become a "Promise Neighborhood." The first 20 planning grants are expected to be announced Tuesday.
Can the premise lift the students in Sunland Park? Is a strong community enough?
The Harlem Children's Zone started its idea with a single block in New York City in the early 1990s, providing adults with financial advice and domestic crisis counseling, teaching expectant parents about prenatal nutrition and child rearing, and offering a safe place and focused learning for preschool children.
The initiative grew to 100 blocks and now serves thousands of families with an $84 million budget.
At the two charter schools the organization runs, results have been impressive: 100 percent of children in its Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten program have been school-ready for seven consecutive years. One hundred percent of third graders scored at or above grade level on the New York state math exam in 2009.
Eighty-six percent of those who participated in its program for parents increased the amount of time spent reading to their children, and about 650 HCZ students are now in college.
There's also evidence they are chipping away at the achievement gap: A study by two Harvard University economists found that the typical eighth grade student in the Harlem Children Zone's middle school outscores the typical white eighth grade student in New York City public schools.
"What you're trying to do is take a community that has not been a healthy community for children and create a healthy environment for kids to grow up in," said Geoffrey Canada, the compassionate, relentless leader of the Harlem Children's Zone. "So your very environment and your community doesn't become an obstacle."
Is it the family and community supports that have made the children successful? Their parents? The school?
That's the question countless studies have tried to nail down in determining how best to help students in distressed communities with perpetually failing schools. The Education Department is trying a multi-prong approach: Billion-dollar programs to turn around failing schools, reform education and, now, whole communities.
The community element seems logical — students in urban, poor communities consistently have lower test scores and high school and college completion rates than those in wealthier, resource-rich neighborhoods.
But two recent reports on the Harlem Children's Zone concluded that community supports alone aren't enough: They must be coupled with strong schools — a finding with which Canada agrees.
"In the end, if you do all of these other things and the schools are just horrid, you are not going to be able to accomplish the goals," Canada said. "And part of the strategy has to be focused on improving what happens in the schools. Schools you run and the other public schools."
In Canada's mind, that includes a longer school day and year, weekend sessions along with the innovative practices states are now considering — using data to measure teacher quality, with rewards based on performance — as part of the government's Race to the Top competition.
"There's lots of evidence to suggest if you get schooling right, you can upend the norms that we expect in those communities," said Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. "But in truly disadvantaged neighborhoods with no such schools, it's very hard even if the supports around the school are robust."
The communities where leaders are hoping the Promise Neighborhoods approach will work bear the common traits of places like Sunland Park: Generations of poverty, many children growing up in single-parent households with adults who either did not finish high school or graduate from college.
In one Louisville, Ky., neighborhood cradled around the Ohio River, the median household income is $23,240, and 92 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Housing units and buildings are old and in need of repair. There are high rates of health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. Some manufacturing and service jobs remain, but cigarettes — once an important industry for the area — have mostly vanished.
The public schools have been low performers: The Academy at Shawnee, a high school, met just six of 15 No Child Left Behind targets in 2009. Atkinson Elementary was the lowest performing school in the state in 2007, though students have made significant gains recently with the guidance of the University of Louisville.
Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton says they are hoping that if Harlem can do it, Louisville can too.
"There's only one Geoffrey Canada," she said. "Who's our Geoffrey Canada? I think there are many of them.
"We don't have the big Fortune 500s that New York is fortunate to have," Hamilton said. "But we've got our own. This is a community that helps each other."
There are logistical challenges to making a Harlem Children's Zone-type organization in places like Louisville. Kentucky, for example, doesn't allow charter schools. Most applicants won't have an $84 million budget.
The Education Department and Canada think the model will work on a smaller scale — even on a budget half the size of the Harlem Children's Zone, and even working with struggling public schools.
"We do recognize that a high-quality school is important to have at the center, but it doesn't have to be a charter school," said Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. "It has to be a school that's focused on producing those really strong outcomes for students."
With a smaller budget, most Promise Neighborhoods will have to rely on a variety of organizations to provide the stream of services leaders have in mind, rather than running everything themselves.
"The question remains, is it scalable?" Knowles said. "Geoff Canada is an extraordinary leader. How much of it is dependent on Geoff Canada? How much of it is dependent on having Wall Street in your backyard?"
Mansfield herself didn't know how to put together a resume a few years ago.
A high school graduate studying at night to become an accountant, she was supported by the father of her four young daughters. Then he was arrested on a drug charge, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Mansfield, 33, fell behind on her payments. The electricity went out. Then the water. The bank took her home.
"I didn't even know how I was going to feed my kids," she said. "Everyone who looked at me during the daytime said, 'You're so strong.' But at night I was a wreck. There was nothing else to do but cry."
The United Way of Broward County envisions a Sunland Park where children and families are supported from the time they are born. They've applied for a Promise Neighborhoods planning grant.
"We're looking from birth to career basically," said Howard Bakalar, senior vice president of the organization. "And that's the ultimate outcome. That they will have a successful academic career that will lead to a successful career."
Mansfield took a course on job searching at a local nonprofit organization and eventually landed a job. She now raises her children, works and goes to school at night, where she is studying to become a nurse.
In each of her struggles, Sunland Park Elementary was there; providing packages of food for her family during Thanksgiving, and toys for the children at Christmas.
When her children attended the school, she went to every meeting.
"They can only do so much," Mansfield said.
The community she knew as a child, though, is a shell of itself.
"I wouldn't dare let my daughters walk through here," she said from the park next to the Sunland Park Elementary, where just two other children were on the playground. "I just don't trust it."